Braille Monitor                                                     December 2007

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Attorney Parnell Diggs Set to Improve Attitudes

by Jan A. Igoe

Parnell DiggsFrom the Editor: The following story appeared on October 18, 2007, in the Myrtle Beach Sun News. Parnell Diggs is president of the NFB of South Carolina and the newest member of the National Federation of the Blind board of directors. The story is exactly the message that we hope Meet the Blind Month media and public education efforts will carry. Here it is:

As a child, Parnell Diggs's parents wouldn't cut him any slack. He was expected to excel in school, do his share of the chores, and take out the trash just like every other kid in his Charlotte, North Carolina, neighborhood, sighted or not.

Diggs, thirty-eight, a Myrtle Beach attorney who has been blind since birth, wouldn't have wanted it any other way. He views blindness as a neutral characteristic with no more intrinsic significance than blond hair or olive skin. As president of the National Federation of the Blind for South Carolina, he's out to challenge any other perception, especially during October, which is Meet the Blind Month. "I don't think it's all that bad to be blind. Blindness is not what it used to be," he said. "In the olden days we had to hunt and gather, be good with a bow and arrow. Now we go out and buy frozen dinners."
Diggs suspects that those who equate misery with blindness simply don't know any blind people.

Even his parents, who raised Parnell to be "the exception to the rule" didn't realize what normal lives and aspirations most blind people have, he said. Technology has opened up new worlds for those without sight. People who are blind or vision impaired have become craftsmen, professors, scientists, computer whizzes, entrepreneurs, and even medical doctors. But of an estimated ten million Americans who have significant sight impairments, less than 50 percent are employed, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. Diggs thinks that unemployment figure is actually closer to 75 percent.

"There is a presumption that blind people will not be able to do the job as well. The struggle is not blindness. The struggle is attitudes," he said. "If you're choosing sides for baseball, the blind person is handicapped. If you're choosing sides for a quiz show, it's equal." He recalls graduation day from the University of South Carolina when "they sort of stopped me. They wanted to present me: 'Look what we've done. We got a blind guy graduating,'" he said. "But they wouldn't have hired me." Diggs said he couldn't even land a job with his dad's law firm, where his father was one of three partners. So father and son ventured out together.

Today Diggs shares an office with his assistant, Tracey Weiland, who handles most of the paperwork and all of the driving. A photo of his wife Kim and seven-year-old son Jordan is the only ornament on his orderly desk. His royal blue notebook, thick with client records, lies at his fingertips. Diggs doesn't sweat much about confidentiality because everything's written in Braille.

His computer communicates through a speech synthesizer in JAWS for Windows, which also outputs to Braille displays. He uses the keyboard to input data. Weiland said he can touch-type faster than she can. Email and Web access are no problem. "I start drafting letters and rely on Tracey to make the margins wide enough. I hate it when you leave one word on the next page," he said. "That's kind of tacky. The only thing I can't do is check her work. That puts me at a little disadvantage. I want to make sure it's visually and aesthetically pleasing."

How he senses these things may baffle sighted people, but Diggs said people have been explaining the difference between stripes and polka dots to him since preschool. "People tell me how something looks. They take my hand, move it across the fabric," he said. "I have to care about it. Whether you're sighted or not, you want to look presentable."

Diggs's practice is about 60 percent Social Security and disability work, with a sprinkling of criminal cases, such as last month's murder trial. Everything from drafting wills to handling divorces is fair game, but disability cases he accepts on contingency are trickier. "If [my client is] blind, it's a slam dunk. If you're sighted, walking and talking, it's harder to prove you're disabled," Diggs said. "It's a situation where someone can't work anymore, you have to win. When you win a case, they tend to refer you. Guess they wouldn't if you lost all the time."

Deidre Edmonds, Horry County probate judge, has known Diggs for about four and a half years and holds his work in high regard. "He really does a good job representing people in the probate court," Edmonds said. "He represents everyone to his fullest ability, whether he's been retained by the client or appointed by court for an indigent client. He's certainly doing a service to the people in this county."
Seeing Diggs navigate hallways with his white cane is pretty familiar to people around the courthouse, Weiland said. Prospective clients are another matter. "If we have a new client who doesn't know he's blind, they'll be taken aback," Weiland said. "But as soon as they meet him and realize how capable he is, they're fine with it."

Diggs insists that he's a pretty normal guy, though Weiland said he routinely commits complex client records to memory without breaking a sweat. "I don't have a better memory. I'm not smarter. I don't have better hearing," Diggs said. "My wife will tell you that I don't hear her 95 percent of the time." Diggs met wife Kim in high school, when she was a senior and he was a sophomore. It took him four hours to convince her to date him. "I didn't want her to think about it. Girls always want to think about it," he said. "She is one of the most intelligent people I've ever met. She can solve complex problems in life with relative ease."

When Diggs isn't working on behalf of clients or his blind brethren, he's practicing for his upcoming tenor solo performance with the Master Chorale. He learns the music by recording it at practice and having the lyrics read to him. "When we sing in a foreign language, I'm in the same boat as everyone else," he said.

"Given the choice of $1 billion or 20/20 vision, I'd take the money. What would I do with 20/20 vision? I'm married. I'm self-employed. I have a child. The sky's the limit. I just can't drive myself."

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